Home    Resume   Class Websites   Favorite Links   OnLine Education   Science Education   Science Books Email


Scientific Literacy

Judith NuŮo

USC Rossier School of Education

CTSE 509: Advanced Science Teaching Methods

October 16, 1997

Imagination, speculation, skepticism and truth are related to science and scientific methods. Imagination is what you think, speculation is guessing, skepticism is doubting and truth are facts of your conclusion.

Truth is known fact, skepticism separates truth from speculation, speculation makes theories based on facts and imagination makes hypotheses of outcomes going beyond what is known.

Speculation, imagination, speculation and truth are related to each other because they make you think about science. They are also used in forming and proving theory.

You use imagination and speculation to reach the truth. You need to be able to be skeptical to realize you are not always right.

They are all used together in science. Speculation is needed because without questions there would be no answers. All answer specific questions in science. Truth is the final analysis of your conclusions. Imagination is your ideas of problems and skepticism is always important because without non-believers, all would be true.

Imagination increases the quantity of hypotheses to test and therefore your chance of being right. Skepticism from others heightens your incentive to prove your idea and eliminates infeasible ideas whey from yourself. Speculation helps you make educated guesses. Truth is what "most people know"--accepted reality, which we can never be certain of.

The above are group answers by an ethnically and culturally diverse of physics students to the question: How are truth, imagination, speculation, skepticism and truth related to science. The question preceded a series of activities on laws and theories but followed the viewing and discussion of the introductory film in Carl Saganís Cosmos series. The answers were written for a grade and were perhaps more the answer of one person in the 4-member groups than a consensus. But they do illustrate what I consider of importance in defining scientific literacy. Science is both a process and a product (DeBoer), but the lasting part of science is the process, for the product may change because of the nature of the process. (Simpson and Anderson, 22).

For a person to be scientifically literate, he and she should understand the nature of scientific knowledge, that it is human, tentative, historic, replicable, public, based on observation, interconnected (Champagne, 22-23) and involves both imagination and skepticism, an awareness of the nature of truth, and speculation. Science proceeds by asking questions, forming tentative answer or explanations, and testing these explanations. Explanations that "fail" the tests are rejected and those that "pass" are further tested. The explanations must be testable and falsifiable but they may be imaginative and speculative. And the "true" explanation may actually be "what works" under current conditions rather than some absolute concept.

But because science is a product, or body of knowledge, as well as a process, the scientifically literate person should be aware of the current state of the product as well as how the product was produced. Several lists of what a person should know to be considered scientifically literate are available (Champagne, Hazen and Trefil in Pool and in Culotta, Showalter), but they tend to reflect the scientific background of the list-makers. Speaking from the perspective of a high school science teacher, trained in biology, but currently teaching biology, chemistry, and physics, I would emphasize interconnections in my list of content products a scientifically literate person should know. Atoms and how they act and react and form both inanimate and animate matter would be on the list as would the distinction between life and non-life, the evolution of the universe and of living creatures, the interdependence of living creatures with living and non-living aspects of their environment (photosynthesis would be included here), the chemical nature and universality of the genetic code and its presence in individual replicable units (viruses and cells) on the earth, the interrelation of time-space-matter-energy and the awesome power of nuclear energy, and the perception that objects are either in motion or at rest relative to other objects. I should add that some understanding of the chemistry of carbon is essential for science literacy, since life as we know it is carbon-based, our current energy supplies are carbon-based, environmental pollutants are for the most part carbon-based, and many disease agents and disease treatments are carbon-based.

A scientifically literate person should be able to apply scientific processes or ways of thinking and knowing to evaluate the complexities of modern life, to separate false claims from falsifiable explanations, to judge the risks and benefits of technological advances, to assess problems created by unethical or inappropriate application of scientific knowledge, to know how to question the "experts" or to know how to ask questions and how to read and evaluate newspaper and popular science writing (Flaste). In addition, a scientifically literate person should be able to find information about science topics. Finally, a scientifically literate person is curious (Wittliln, 331) or at least able to be curious and wonder about how and why the natural world works the ways it does. Everyone cannot be curious, or speculative, or imaginative, or skeptical all the time, but everyone should have the capability. Science education should indulge the human propensity to be curious and teach the tools to indulge that curiosity. People actually do science all the time, usually without thinking, when they work on their cars to improve the timing, when they vary ingredients in a recipe to see how the flavor or texture changes, when they try different watering cycles to improve the growth of their lawn, when they try different swings for hitting a golf ball. The goal of scientific literacy would then be to enable these same people to do science when evaluating bigger questions or, more importantly, false claims or pseudoscientific beliefs.

Experience has taught me that my classes are not the only nor the last science classes my students will ever take. Once I realized this, I stopped cramming them full of scientific jargon and stepped back and let them indulge their curiosity, albeit with guidance. A certain amount of terminology is necessary when teaching product as in teaching process. But I would judge that my physics students are scientifically literate when they can read and explain a newspaper or magazine article related to physics, can discuss with examples changing views on a topic relative to physics, and can gather and organize data about a specific physics phenomenon, find patterns in their data , speculate about the explanations for the patterns, devise a way to test their explanations and determine whether or not their explanations are valid. The explanations may be fanciful but they must be testable. Most of my students find the work hard, challenging and frustrating but they often, especially near the end of the year, comment that the "time goes so fast in this class," "why canít we spend all day in physics," "this is actually fun," and "I didnít realize I had learned so much." When I hear comments like these, and when I see them discussing discrepant values in some lab activity or defending their explanations with enthusiasm, I know that I have helped them become literate at least in the process side of scientific literacy.


Culotta, E. (1991). Sciencs 20 greatest hits take their lumps. Science 251:1308-09.

DeBoer, G. E. (1991). A history of ideas in science education: Implications for practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Champagne, A. B. (1989). Defining scientific literacy. Educational leadership. October.

Flaste, R. (1991). The New York Times book of science literacy (Introduction). New York: The New York Times Company.

Pool, R. (1991). Science ltieracy: The enemy is us. Science 251:255-267.

Simpson, P. D. And Anderson, N. D. (1981). What is scientific literacy from Science, students and schools. New York: Wiley.

Showalter, V. Et al (n. d.) "What is unified science education (Part 5). Program objectives and science literacy. Columbus, OH: Center for Unified Science Education.

Wittlin, A. S. (1962) Scientific literacy begins in th elementary school. Science education 47:331-342.

Home    Resume   Class Websites   Favorite Links   OnLine Education   Science Education   Science Books Email